Earlier this week, the Oakland Athletics announced that for the first time, their games will not be broadcast on any Bay Area radio station. A’s games will instead live exclusively on A’s Cast via the TuneIn app. Games will still air on the radio in other parts of Northern California, but the nearest station to carry them in English will be KHTK in Sacramento, over 90 miles away.
The A’s rolled out the A’s Cast service last year, making them the only team in baseball to offer a streamed audio broadcast of the game free of charge. The A’s, however, have rescinded this goodwill by eliminating local radio broadcasts, and it’s a troubling step toward less accessible baseball.
The A’s have never found a consistent home on the radio waves. The team has bounced around between 12 different stations since moving to Oakland in 1968, and KTRB, their most recent home, was their fifth since 2000. For comparison, the Giants across the bay have had two radio flagships since moving to San Francisco in 1958, and they have been at KNBR since 1979.
From 2011 to 2018, A’s games were broadcast on 95.7 The Game, but according to the A’s and their fans, the station showed a preference to the other teams in the Bay Area, often relegating the A’s to alternate broadcasts to instead give better coverage to the Golden State Warriors. Ahead of the 2019 season, the A’s decided not to renew their contract in the pettiest way possible.
The Game ignoring the A’s may have been symptomatic of another issue, though. Interest in the A’s is dwindling. As pointed out by the Mercury News’ Dieter Kurtenbach, the A’s have the second-lowest television audience, and their television ratings dropped 18 percent last year. It’s not that the A’s necessarily want to move away from radio, it’s that radio wants to move away from them.
Regardless of the impetus, the decision to get off the air will hurt low-income fans. Yes, the games will be streamed for free on TuneIn, but when it comes to online streaming, there’s no such thing as free. In order to listen to a game on TuneIn, a fan needs to have two things: a smartphone and access to high-speed internet. Broadcasts can also be accessed by desktop and laptop, but such devices are impractical in the car and in other environments where one would listen to a baseball game.
Even in the year 2020, not every American adult owns a smartphone. According to a study by Pew Research Center, it’s estimated that 81 percent of Americans own a smartphone. I don’t know how those numbers translate to the Bay Area population, but the amount of people without a device to listen to a A’s games could be as high as 1-in-5.
Then there’s the cost of a data plan or home network plan. Oakland Unified School District estimated that 1.5 million Bay Area residents are without internet access. Every one of those residents is now without a way to listen to an A’s broadcast from their home when all they previously needed was a radio. Among those with a smartphone and internet access, not all can afford to stream hours upon hours of baseball every month. At least in Oakland, one can be assured that high-speed data is available for purchase. The same can’t be said of rural areas where even home networks have difficulty achieving the speeds necessary for streaming.
Fortunately, A’s games will still play on the radio outside of the Bay Area, but if the A’s, or any other team, ever decide to get off the air waves entirely, a higher percentage of people will be without a way to access baseball. One would hope that a team would never kill its radio presence, but the current plan to eliminate 42 minor league teams would suggest that MLB isn’t concerned about reaching fans in every part of the country.
For now, let’s hope that the A’s departure from radio is temporary or at least isolated to the Bay Area and that no other teams follow their lead. Baseball on the radio isn’t just a relic of nostalgia, it’s a way to ensure that everyone has access to the game and team they love.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.